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Farmers and agronomists have debated the pros and cons of no-till versus other tillage systems for decades. Reviews of research comparing corn and soybean yields between no-till and other tillage systems continue to find only small differences in yield.1 No-till corn and soybeans tend to perform better in southern and western regions over other tillage systems; however, overall yield decreases were noted in north-central states and Canada (Table 1). No-till systems do not perform as well when soil drainage problems exist. Many of the tillage studies that are cited in reviews did not have a stable no-till system in place prior to initiating an experiment, which may bias the results. Overall, the outcome of each different tillage system will depend upon the individual field and production practices.
The intensity of soil disturbance and the number of operations can be used to define a tillage system (Table 2). Primary tillage is deep tillage (> 6 inches) that loosens and fractures the soil for weed control and incorporation of residue, fertilizer, lime, and manure. Shallow tillage (< 6 inches) kills weeds, cuts and covers crop residue, incorporates herbicides, and prepares a seedbed. In-season tillage for weed control or incorporating fertilizer or manure is considered tertiary tillage.2
Each tillage system has advantages and disadvantages that need to be assessed for each field situation (Table 3). Selecting the best tillage system for a specific situation requires consideration of several factors.4